A Caribbean party with question marks
It was an opening night to savour for Ajmal Khan, Damien O'Donohoe, Denis O'Brien and Dave Cameron. The founder of the Caribbean Premier League, its CEO, the Digicel chairman, and the West Indies Cricket Board president saw their big project take off under the bright lights at Kensington Oval in just the manner desired.
There was drama from ball one, Albie Morkel of the St Lucia Zouks dismissing Dwayne Smith of the home team, Barbados Tridents.
The game's final act, Tridents captain Kieron Pollard taking a return catch to get rid of Garey Mathurin, was also full of import. As he threw the ball into the air on completion of the catch and the win, a full house erupted, joining him in celebration.
One of the sub-plots to that first match was the fact that Pollard, a Trinidadian, had been the choice to lead the Barbados franchise in preference to hometown favourite Smith; a decision that even prompted a street protest. So Pollard leading his side to the first win of the CPL and to do so after being one of the chief contributors with bat, ball and in the field, was in itself a public-relations triumph.
The following night's win for Amazon Warriors at their Guyana home base in Providence was another decent spectacle with the right outcome for the locals. Here again, the CPL leaders had reason to smile with deep and real satisfaction.
Though he was on the losing side with the Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel, Nicolas Pooran, only 17, and the baby of this series, was the star of the night, although not Player of the Match.
With just four 50-over games for Trinidad & Tobago this year to recommend him, the unheralded left-handed wicketkeeper-batsman gave momentum and hope to a side struggling for both when he went to the crease. He landed six sixes for Trinidad, without a slog. It was an innings that brought genuine admiration from seasoned watchers. Even the Guyanese fans would have enjoyed the exhibition of clean, calm strokeplay by a mere boy. Their team still won, and their captain, Ramnaresh Sarwan, with his late flurry at the end of his team's innings, came to the party in a way he has rarely done in the Caribbean in recent years. Put that together with the attractive runs from Barbados' Shoaib Malik, St Lucia's Andre Fletcher and Darren Sammy, and Pollard's all-round show, and the early acts of the CPL have shown the makings of a good production - established stars shining, and a new talent striding on stage.
The stakeholders will be desperate for the show to get the thumbs-up from spectators and TV viewers alike. Based on the IPL model, the CPL is supposed to be the money-spinner for Caribbean cricket that the incarcerated Allen Standford's T20 venture was not. It is the venture the West Indies board hopes will put money in the pockets of its players the way the board currently cannot; and into its own hardly brimming coffers.
A bright and prosperous CPL can also distract for at least a month from the grim times still engulfing the international side. The high of last year's World Twenty20 triumph has worn off now. West Indies cricket is in search of a fresh boost, for the just concluded season of international cricket has not proved to be one of good cheer.
While the year began with the predictable sweeps of rehabilitating Zimbabwe in their Test and ODI series, the season at home has ended with solid beatings by India and Sri Lanka that eliminated West Indies from the final of the tri-nation ODI series, and dominance by Pakistan 3-1 in another one-day series; to add to the injury, a 2-0 shutout in the T20s followed.
There was no consolation at the end of six hectic months that also included Duckworth-Lewis elimination at the group stage from the Champions Trophy.
Along, however, has come the CPL.
From a playing standpoint, it at least offers the chance over time for regional players to pick up some finer points from the international members of their franchises. That is one of coach Ottis Gibson's big hopes. He would be glad if players coming to him in future don't struggle so mightily to turn over the strike and are better able to play smarter in tight situations.
However, the CPL, T20 cricket that it is, will not in itself develop the West Indies Test match stars of the future. It can, however, give the board the financial means by which to better fund its own development programmes.
The WICB directors have put great faith in the new entity to deliver. That faith was placed in Khan and his Verus International company, with whom past president Julian Hunte signed the deal last year.
At one tournament event in May, Khan, credited as the founder of the CPL, stressed that success of the venture would be based on partnerships. He said the CPL was not going to be a one-man show. He certainly was right.
In June, a power shift occurred in the CPL when telecommunications outfit Digicel became the majority shareholder. Here is how Khan put it then: "Since we launched the Caribbean Premier League in partnership with the WICB, we have been focused on attracting major strategic partners who will help build a world-class tournament that stimulates the local economies of the Caribbean. I am delighted that my close partners at Digicel have shared so passionately the vision I have for the development of cricket and the unequalled opportunity that is provided by this tournament for the entire Caribbean region. I look forward to working with the WICB and Digicel to accomplish these goals."
Such generosity from Khan to allow his baby, so to speak, to be taken over is curious and has not to this point been publicly explained. But corporate interest in the venture has grown somewhat.
Guyana-based New GPC's Limacol brand is now the title sponsor of the league. New GPC also owns Amazon Warriors. But while a host of other Caribbean corporate entities have attached themselves to various franchises, New GPC remains the only Caribbean franchise owner. Interests from Pakistan control the St Lucia Zouks. That deal was completed only just before the tournament began. Four days earlier, it was announced that Europe-based mobile-network operator Lycamobile had purchased the Red Steel franchise. Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg has been sold an equity stake in the Barbados Tridents.
However, no buyers have as yet been announced for the Antigua and Jamaica teams. That must make the CPL principals a tad uneasy.
They really need the product - the cricket - to sell itself for this Caribbean party to go the distance.
So far, the signs are promising.
Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express